Wednesday, February 27, 2008


by Sarojni Mehta-Lissak

"Going solar" is gaining momentum as more and more people want to harness the sun's energy for their home's needs. But before stepping on the solar path, it's important to know typical electricity usage--and that comes from reading and understanding an electric bill.

Todd Fanady, with Ameco Solar in Signal Hill, Calif., helps decipher the mystery of all those words, numbers, and figures that show up on monthly bills. It is knowing habits and usage that determines the best solar system for your home. In the Q & A below, Fanady explains the importance of being a smart consumer.

SM-L: What's the greatest misunderstanding about an electric bill? Or--what do all those numbers, percentages and words mean?

TF: The pretty hieroglyphics found on your electric bill are the power company's latest work of abstract art. They are an obtuse representation of what they are charging you and why. The greatest misunderstanding is that you should be able to understand it all.

SM-L: Why is it important for the consumer to understand a bill?

TF: It's important to understand [a bill] so that you have an idea of how your electrical usage habits affect what you pay.

SM-L: Where is a good place to start when looking at a bill to detect usage habits?

TF: The place to start is the total kWh (kilowatt hours) used in the month. On tiered rate structures, such as Edison's, this number breaks down to different amounts used in each tier.

SM-L: What are tiers? How much is the SCE customer charged in each one?

TF: A tiered rate structure, like Edison's, charges a progressively higher rate per kWh the more electricity you use. Some utilities, such as LADWP, charge a simple flat rate per kWh regardless of how much you use. Edison's residential rates have 5 tiers. The lowest is called Baseline and is about the first 10 kWh used per day. The present rate for baseline electricity is about 11 cents per kWh. Then the subsequent tiers are approximately:
Tier I (next 3 kWh) .14/kWh
Tier II (next 7 kWh) .23/kWh
Tier III (next 20 kWh) .26/kWh
Tier IV (all usage above 40 kWh) .30/kWh

SM-L: Please describe kilowatt hours.

TF: Watts x hours are watthours. One kilowatt hour (kWh) is one thousand watt hours. A 100 watt light bulb turned on for ten hours uses one kWh of electricity.

SM-L: What are the most expensive energy hogs in a home?

TF: The largest user of electricity in a home is typically the refrigerator, since its pump draws a good amount [of electricity] and is constantly cycling on and off 24/7. Pool pumps use a lot, as do electric space heaters, stoves, ovens, air conditioners and big screen TVs. Most new appliances are substantially more energy-efficient than ones 10-years-old. "Phantom loads" can add up to a lot of kWh, too. These are small electrical draws from appliances that are turned off but still use a little electricity, anyway. TVs, DVDs, stereos and computers are typical culprits. If you plug them into a power bar or surge protector with an on/off switch, then you can completely switch off several of them at once. You can also just pull the cord.

SML: How can a user move into the lower tiers where the charges are cheapest?

TF: Cut kWh usage! This can be done by using more efficient appliances and lighting sources, by consciously reducing wasteful habits like leaving lights on in vacant rooms, by getting rid of that extra freezer you don't really need, by swapping a full-sized fridge for a small one if you're single, by turning computers off when not in use, by cutting back pool pump hours in the winter and by investing in a solar or wind (in windy rural areas) electricity generating systems.

SM-L: Do you have any other advice you'd like to offer?

TF: Solar systems are a great investment of your hard-earned money because they will save you a lot over many years. The money you save can be used for much better purposes than on [paying for] energy that you could be producing yourself for free from a renewable source that does not pollute our planet. However, before you spend on costly ways to supply energy, look at ways to save it. Most homes waste a great deal of electricity where they need not. That 100 watt bulb burning for 10 hours each day would take about $2,000 of costly solar panels to offset!

About Todd:

Todd Fanady grew up in the Bay Area and moved to Long Beach about 10 years ago. In high school he studied architecture and the use of solar energy in this field. Years later, after college, he had his own marketing business that focused on the automotive industry. After reading Al Gore's book on climate change, "Earth in the Balance", Fanady decided he was on the wrong side of a great battle. So he rekindled his interest in solar and found his way to AMECO four years ago. He is now very happy designing and promoting solar energy systems for all kinds of homes and businesses.

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